Olympian and marathon icon Meb Keflezighi has won many titles but on Wednesday, he was awarded an honor very close to his heart: “Outstanding American by Choice.”
At a naturalization ceremony for 50 new U.S. citizens at Gompers Preparatory Academy in San Diego, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will recognize Keflezighi with the award, which recognizes the achievements of naturalized U.S. citizens.
Since 2006, the USCIS has given the “Outstanding American by Choice” award to about 130 people from more than 50 countries. Keflezighi is the second honoree in San Diego.
“It means a lot to me because coming here to the United States was my parents’ dream, for educational opportunities,” he told NBC 7. “And for me, my siblings and I have accomplished a lot in the U.S. but my running kind of has excelled to the expectation.”
Keflezighi is a two-time Olympian who won a silver medal for the U.S. in Athens in 2004, the first Olympic marathon medal for an American man since 1976. In 2012, he finished in fourth place at the London Olympics. In 2016, at the age of 41, he made history at the Rio Olympics as the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time.
In 2009 he won the New York City Marathon and in 2014 he won the Boston Marathon – titles that made history for the U.S. as he ended the dry spells by becoming the first U.S. citizen to win each race since the early 1980s.
His emotional and inspirational victory at the 2014 Boston Marathon – one year after the deadly bombings at the race – is one for the books. He crossed that finish line with the names of the bombing victims scrolled on his bib; chants of “USA! USA! USA!” reverberated in the sea of spectators.
Keflezighi, who was born in Eritrea, moved to the U.S. with his family in the late 1980s. He was naturalized nearly 19 years ago, on July 2, 1998.
For him, Wednesday’s award means the world.
It reminds him of the most important route he’s ever paced – the route of his life – and the opportunities he’s been given in the U.S. to succeed.
“My opportunity that the U.S. has provided for me is limitless,” the Olympian said. “My life would’ve been completely different if I were in Eritrea, where I was born. I would’ve been a farmer, a lot of cattle, hopefully.”
Keflezighi attended Roosevelt Middle School in San Diego and graduated from San Diego High School in 1994. He went on to graduate from the University of California Los Angeles. In America’s Finest City, he’s an athletics legend.
In 1988, Keflezighi said his 7th grade Physical Education teacher told him that one day he would compete in the Olympics. When he got home from school that day, Keflezighi ran to his father to ask him what the word “Olympics” meant.
New to the U.S., the family was still in the process of learning English.
“When we first came here, my parents and siblings and I didn’t have the language,” he recalled.
Keflezighi’s father would wake up at 4:30 a.m. every day to learn English, before the kids went to school at 7:30 a.m.
“That’s how it worked out,” he added, with a grin.
He’s grateful for the path he’s been able to take as an American.
“I have to pinch myself sometimes, ‘Is this really happening?’ Thank you to my parents and many of the great citizens of the U.S. who helped me maximize my potential,” he told NBC 7.
Keflezighi also said although he excels in a solo sport, it’s a team effort.
“I would not have done it without the support of the people that have been involved in my life. I may run the marathon, but there’s a team behind the team that’s very deep that help me achieve my accolades,” he added.
Keflezighi ran his first New York City Marathon in 2002. He said that first marathon was so painful, he swore he’d never run one again.
He didn’t follow the plan.
“I’m going back to New York to do my 26th and final marathon on November 5,” he said. “I’m looking forward to closing up my athletic career. It’s been very rewarding; God has blessed me more than I could’ve ever imagined.”
Keflezighi turned 42 last week. He said running the 2017 Boston Marathon a few weeks ago proved tough on his body.
“It was really challenging,” he said. “My body was pretty beat up.”
Throughout his long career, Keflezighi said he’s keep this mantra top of mind: “Always, at the finish line, one race is the beginning of another.”
Keflezighi plans to run the 2017 Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon on June 4, likely helping runners keep pace on the route.
When he’s not hitting the pavement, Keflezighi runs the MEB Foundation – “Maintaining. Excellent. Balance” – an organization that promotes youth health, education and fitness.